SugarCRM CEO on taking the pain out of CRM software

How this global CEO is bringing a commitment to lifetime customer value and simplicity of use to life at the CRM software vendor

Craig Charlton
Craig Charlton

The creators of sales and marketing software have a long history of promising to make life easier for users, accompanied by a patchy track record when it comes to delivering on that promise.

It’s a situation that has been all too familiar for Craig Charlton through his career building, managing and selling software companies in Australia and the US. And it explains why in his current role as CEO of SugarCRM he is dedicated to the idea of taking the hard work out of using his company’s software.

“It is our north star,” Charlton tells CMO. “Every single thing we do at an executive level goes through the lens of ‘does this help with letting the platform do the work’. We are never going to get there completely, but we are making very, very strong progress.”

It’s a perspective also backed by research published by SugarCRM early in 2021 of 2000 non-SugarCRM users. This found 52 per cent believed their CRM was costing them revenue.

“It is the biggest enterprise software market in the world, it’s ranked by many executives as the most important, and it’s failing miserably,” Charlton says. “How is this possible? Salespeople are very intelligent, cunning individuals, and they will figure out ways not to use a system unless it is adding value.”

Customers for life

Melbourne-born Charlton started his career in accounting before taking a role in management consulting, then building up a business that was sold to the ERP software maker, Epicor. He stayed with Epicor in senior management roles, attracting the attention of that company’s owners, the investment firm Accel-KKR, who asked him to manage several of their investments. This led to his current role with SugarCRM.

Charlton’s commitment to taking out the hard work also extends to the way he is building the culture of SugarCRM, given he is competing in a market dominated by a company that is much, much larger than his own.

“I am always banging on with my team that we need to be the easiest company in the world to deal with,” Charlton says. “We have to be successful every single time, so we are very, very mindful of the fact that we absolutely have to nail that customer experience every single day.

“Companies that are maniacally focused on building customers for life understand that they have to enshrine that competitive advantage into everything they do, and from new employees to old hands, it needs to become something that is second nature.”

Part of his strategy has been to build SugarCRM’s functionality through acquisitions, bringing marketing automation and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities into the platform. This includes more functionality for how his customers can use their data, such as for sentiment analysis.

“That takes the whole concept of NPS scoring and customer advocacy surveys and leaps over that,” Charlton says. “If I am constantly interpreting the data and looking at all of the interactions with my customers, then I am proactively picking up on sentiment, and on things like next best action and what we should be doing for that customer.”

One of those acquisitions was of a company called Node.AI, which was bought in response to the knowledge that a lot of the data that sits in CRM systems is incomplete, inaccurate and in some cases, just plain wrong.

“One of the biggest challenges with CRM, and Dun & Bradstreet’s studies show, is close to 90 per cent of the data has problems,” Charlton says. “People call it out regularly in terms of the accuracy of the data. For AI to be of any value it has to be accurate. If it is relying only your incumbent CRM data, I don’t think you have a chance in hell of making that happen.

“Node.AI takes about 75 different metrics that are all anonymised, and consumes that along with the CRM data, to dramatically improve the accuracy.”

Given his focus on making life easier for users, Charlton says he will continue to invest in technology and services to help customers capture, ingest, and maintain the integrity of data.

“Our perspective is you have to get the balance of minimal effort,” Charlton says. “Let the machinery do what the machinery should do, but provide maximum value by providing things like AI, predictive insights, next-best-actions, and flagging things that you need to be aware of.

“Coming up on three years later, it has been a lot of fun. We are growing rapidly and getting lots of great coverage from the analysts, and we are the most loved on any customer choice measure.”

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